Luring in Foreign Investment with Subsidies

Almost every news article I read about new foreign investment in the U.S. starts off very positive and exciting.  Here’s one from earlier this week:

Volvo Cars will build a factory in South Carolina, the company said on Monday, making it the first time a Chinese-owned automaker will have an auto assembly plant in the United States.

Volvo will invest $500 million in the new factory, which will be in Berkeley County, S.C., outside Charleston. The company estimated that the plant — its first in the United States since entering the market 60 years ago — would employ 2,000 people in its early years and eventually be closer to 4,000. Construction will begin this fall and the factory will begin producing vehicles in 2018.

Volvo, which remains based in Sweden, has gone through a number of owners in recent years. In 2010, Zhejiang Geely Holdings, its current owner, bought it from Ford, which acquired it in 2000 from the Volvo Group.

It’s good news that the U.S. is so welcoming to foreign investors, including those from China.  That kind of openness is great for our economy.

But then, inevitably, the article says something like this:

South Carolina officials lined up sizable incentives to lure the Volvo plant. The automaker will receive about $200 million in combined incentives. That includes $120 million in economic development bonds, $30 million in state grants and an additional $50 million of incentives from a state-owned utility company, Santee Cooper.

Foreign investment is great, but governments competing for it with massive subsidies makes absolutely no sense.  One of the most important issues related to foreign investment right now is how to rein in these subsidies.

Unfortunately, the actual debate over foreign investment rules focuses on special provisions in trade and investment agreements that let foreign investors sue governments.  We are debating the issue right now at Cato Unbound; I’m one of the two critics of such provisions, and two others are writing in support of these provisions.  One of the points I make is that subsidies to foreign investors are the real problem, and any international rules in this area should focus on that.  We’ll see how the supporters respond.

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